After their surprise playoff run in 2020 and a solid start to this season, the Denver Nuggets were looking for the final piece of their championship puzzle – and they seemed to find it in Aaron Gordon by close of trade. With Gordon in the fold, the Nuggets immediately won eight games in a row. This was the longest winning streak since their franchise record of 15 straight wins in 2012-13, and increased their chances of winning to 14 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based forecast.

Gordon found solidarity with Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. and MVP candidate Nikola Jokić. From March 26 to April 9, this five-person unit had a net rating of +33.9 over 90 minutes, according to NBA.com. During that time, Denver’s new starting line-up scored 133.9 points per 100 possessions, while opponents were only 35 percent shooting from below.

Then Murray tore open his ACL.

Current championship odds for longest tenure NBA franchises that have not yet won a title

team Current title odds Years in the league
Phoenix Suns 3% 52
LA Clippers 29 50
Utah Jazz 14th 46
Brooklyn networks 14th 44
Denver nuggets 3 44
Indiana Pacers <1 44

Odds to win on April 19, 2021.

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Suddenly, Denver seemed destined to end the fourth-longest active drought in the NBA championship among the teams seeking their first, now 44. The Nuggets’ chances of winning the title have fallen to just 3 percent in the FiveThirtyEight forecast.

“It’s a sad thing, of course,” said Jokić of his longtime team-mate’s injury. “Me and him, we have a lot of connections on the ground. We’re really good with each other on the pitch and we’ll miss him on the team … but that doesn’t mean we’re going to quit, you know? “

Replacing Murray won’t be an easy task. The fifth-year security guard hit career highs in over 48 games this season in terms of rating (21.2 points per game), assists (4.8 per game) and real shooting percentage (59.2) – an impressive continuation of his playoff -Run 2020 in the bubble. There he and Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell joined Allen Iverson (2001) and Michael Jordan (1988) as the only players in NBA postseason history to record multiple 50-point games within a series. Murray’s offensive fueled the Nuggets, who became the first team to overcome multiple 3-1 deficits in a single playoff run. In the last postseason in the clutch time, Murray (39) was only behind Jimmy Butler (48), Jokić (30) finished fifth.

Denver now has to prepare for the first extended separation of its star duo in half a decade. Can the team produce and smother buckets at the elite level against the best in the west?

The Nuggets ended up with a top 10 defense once in Mike Malone’s six seasons as head coach (10th in 2018-19). This season, Denver was only 20th in the defensive standings before Gordon took over and was up to then behind the Wehbegone Rockets (14th), Pistons (15th) and Cavaliers (17th). The 2000-01 Lakers are the last champions to land outside the top 15.

However, threading such a needle is within reach, given Jokić’s historic offensive performance – even without Murray on the pitch. In these situations, the Joker averages a triple-double every 36 minutes while shooting 39 percent from depth.

The Joker also excelled without Murray

Statistics for Nikola Jokić playing with and without Jamal Murray on the pitch, 2020-21 season

Per 36 minutes
Points Rebounds Helps Real shooting%
Murray in the square 25.6 11.4 8.3 65.6%
Murray from the square 29.0 10.9 10.6 62.3

Until April 18, 2021.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

The most used lineups in Denver since Murray’s injury have been Jokić, Gordon, Porter Jr., Barton, and fourth year security guard Monté Morris. These five have a net rating of +5.9 in two games combined in 26 minutes. The offensive efficiency of this lineup is north of 140, but unfortunately for the nuggets, as is the defensive rating (although the small sample size limitation applies here).

And that’s another area Denver will miss Murray in. By April 12, Denver’s runner-up scorer was ranked 11th out of 64 qualified guards for a field goal percentage (43.4). That number was Murray’s best since his 2016-17 rookie season (42.4). Without Murray’s ability to hit the ball and put it under pressure, the Nuggets must trust Gordon to fill the crucial gaps where his new team is weakest.

Since Gordon was drafted fourth in the overall standings by Orlando in 2014, Gordon has proven to be one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA and, according to Second Spectrum, ranks ninth among 101 qualified players in terms of field goal percentage allowed for jumpers (35.6). With this mark he is ahead of Kawhi Leonard (12th), Paul George (14th), Giannis Antetokounmpo (21st) and Jimmy Butler (26th). Defensive selection. Although Gordon’s career has not been so successful, he is confident of the value it brings to Denver.

This season, opponents shoot 49.3 percent of the color when guarded by Gordon, who ranks 18th out of 293 qualified defenders.

“I’m proud of the defense,” said Gordon after his second game with Denver. “If I can help this team by defending some of the best players in the league, I’ll be more than happy.”

The West has no shortage of large-scale goalscorers willing to train the defense of the nuggets. The Utah Jazz has scored 20 or more 3-point points in 15 games so far this season, just behind the Rockets’ NBA record for the 2018/19 season of 18. The Phoenix Suns are well on their way to one Decades of playoff drought overcoming the strength of their strongest offense since 2013-14. And of course, nobody counts the Leonard / George-led LA Clippers or the defending champions Lakers who will bring Anthony Davis and LeBron James back shortly.

Denver won its first two games without Murray by double digits. However, the real test will come in a month’s time when the playoffs begin. Malone sees a way forward for the nuggets as they adjust to some crucial addition and subtraction.

“Don’t go out and try to be something you are not. Be true to yourself and bring it with you every night, ”he said after Denver beat Miami last week. “Play hard, compete, play with discipline, play with effort, and play on both ends of the floor. If they do, we will have a chance to weather the storm without Jamal. “

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